Friday, August 30, 2013

Homemade Ship - Rose Melberg

Homemade Ship
Rose Melberg
K Records KLP 211

Rose Melberg was in a bunch of my favorite groups in the 1990s including the Softies, Tiger Trap, Go Sailor and Gaze and more recently Brave Irene.  This is her third solo album, actually it is more like her second solo album since the first one, "Portola," was a compilation of odds and ends.  The album is basically her and her guitar so it sounds a bit twee, but that is not a problem for me since I adore twee - I'd rather listen to the Shermans than the Ramones.  The album opens with the sweet "Things That We Do."   She tells the subject of the song that she wants to be around that person, under any circumstance no strings attached.  Melberg double tracks her vocal (as she does throughout the album) so it sounds a lot like the Softies.  She is terrific at crafting harmony vocals.  "Look Skyward" is similar musically and thematically.  It has the nice line "true love will always take you home."  In "Bear in a Cave" she compares herself to a hibernating bear as she isolates herself at home.  "Outlaws" has a bit of a Spanish or ranchera flavor to it as befits its western imagery.  "Old Days" returns to the quiet introspective style of the Softies as Melberg sings about how her new relationship is helping her to forget the past and enjoy life.  The double tracked vocal on this song is gorgeous.  Side one ends with "Moon Singer" which is a more sprightly tune, but a bit too twee even for me.  She describes herself as a raccoon singing only for the titular character who only sings for the moon.  Side two opens with my favorite track on the album, "Homemade Ship" which features another stunningly beautiful double tracked vocal.  It uses the metaphor of a ship at sea to poetically examine a relationship that has run off course.  Melberg is joined by Larissa Loyva on vocals for "Clay Bride" and "The Whistle Calling You" and their voices complement each other exquisitely evoking memories of Jen Sbragia and Melberg crooning together in the Softies.  Loyva is a Canadian indie pop singer who records under the name Kellarissa, I really like her CD "Flamingo."  "Clay Bride" is a glacially slow song full of nesting imagery while "The Whistle Calling You" is a livelier tune about commitment I believe.  "Sharks" is a short but striking song driven by an insistent guitar riff in which Melberg seeks her lover's company to illuminate the dark place in her mind where sharks gather and to drive them away.  I love the imagery in this song.  Loyva returns to play piano on "Sidewalk" which I find a welcome addition to the meager instrumentation on the album.  The song starts out with the image of a sidewalk cracking because of tree roots and moves into an exploration of belief and the fragility of relationships.  The album ends with "Truly" my other favorite song on the album.  It is a delicate love song with lots of emotion, it really sends me.  I greatly admire this record and play it often.  I do have mixed feelings about the sparseness of the instrumental accompaniment.  Certainly it bolsters the vulnerability and intimacy of the songs, but it is also a bit monotonous.  I don't mind the absence of a rhythm section, but I wouldn't mind a little more instrumental color besides Melberg's guitar, like an occasional violin or some keyboards.  Nonetheless this is a very atmospheric album that creates a mood of contemplation and muted romanticism.  It sounds great on a rainy afternoon or late at night.  Recommended to fans of Dear Nora.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Black Is Black - Los Bravos

Black Is Black
Los Bravos
Press Records PRS 83003

I first encountered Los Bravos on the very first album I bought, the 1960s compilation, "Get It Together" which featured their hit single "Black is Black."  I was not very impressed by it at first, but over the years it grew on me and eventually I bought the album it first appeared on.  The group was from Spain but their songs were in English and sung by a German, Mike Kogel.  Kogel has a striking voice, high yet powerful, like a cross between Gene Pitney and Tom Jones.  Kogel's booming vocals are the only real reason to listen to this group which did not write its own material and whose music is fairly generic mid-1960s beat-pop.  The band sounds a lot like English mainstream pop from the period which isn't much of a surprise given that the album was recorded in England by studio musicians and produced by Ivor Raymonde who produced Dusty Springfield and the Walker Brothers.  The title song is by far my favorite track and it is credited to Michelle Grainger, Tony Hayes and Steve Wadey.  It has a driving beat upon which are laid complementary riffs from the bass, guitar and organ with brass overdubs for extra oomph.  Kogel's anguished vocal conveys the heartbreak expressed by the lyrics with a lot of power.  Nothing on the album comes close to the excellence of "Black is Black."  Seven of the songs were written by Manolo Diaz who along with the album's associate producer Alain Milhaud (also the band's manager) was the driving force behind the formation of Los Bravos.  Diaz was a pop performer in his own right and had been the singer in a Spanish group called Los Sonor that had merged with another group to form Los Bravos.  None of his songs are bad, but none are particularly memorable either.  They tend to have a simple, bubblegum music type construction that I find boring, particularly since there are so many of them on the record.  I would say the best one is "You Wont Get Far" (co-written with Colin Butler) which has more of a rock sound to it, followed by the melodic "Baby Baby" (co-written with Raymonde) and the punchy "Stop That Girl" (also co-written with Butler.)  After "Black is Black" my favorite songs on the album are a pair of songs from Phil Coulter and Bill Martin who wrote "Puppet On a String" for Sandie Shaw and would later write some hits for the Bay City Rollers.  Their contributions "Trapped" and "I'm Cuttin' Out" have a lot of energy and give Kogel the opportunity to show off his vocal dynamism.  I also like "I Don't Care" by Ivor Raymonde and Tony Clarke who would later be the producer for the Moody Blues.  It is a very upbeat, poppy sounding tune that was released in England as a single with moderate success.  Perhaps the most curious song on the album is "She Believes in Me" by Vito Pallavicini and Alberto Baldan Bembo with English lyrics by Peter Callender.  The song was introduced by Gene Pitney at the 1966 Sanremo song festival and was released as a single by him under its Italian title "Lei mi aspetta."  Personally I prefer Pitney's version even if it is in Italian, Kogel's performance is too overblown for my taste.  I'm hesitant to fully endorse this album, the songwriting is just too pedestrian.  However if you dig mid-1960s British commercial pop music, particularly melodramatic vocalists like the Walker Brothers, this will probably be right in your wheelhouse.   Recommended to Gene Pitney fans who wish he had rocked out more. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Galleries - The Young Tradition

The Young Tradition
Vanguard VSD 79295

The third and final album by the English folk group The Young Tradition, which comprised Heather Wood, Royston Wood and Peter Bellamy.  The group can be viewed as a transitional group leading up to the British folk-rock movement, but more for their eclecticism, attitude and appearance than their music which is decidedly folk, not folk-rock.  Bellamy in particular looked like a rocker and the group lived for awhile with Bert Jansch and John Renbourn of the Pentangle.  I think that the early Pentangle was influenced by them and probably Fairport Convention as well.  The album opens with the instrumental "Ductia" which sounds like an Elizabethan dance tune, one of the few tracks to feature percussion on the album.  "The Barley Straw" is sung a cappella by the group.  It is a traditional song about a rich squire who seduces a farmer's daughter by pretending to be a traveling tinker and gets her pregnant.  The album abruptly shifts gears with Thomas Campion's 17th Century tune "What If a Day" which muses philosophically about the fleeting nature of life and pleasure.  The tune benefits from a lovely instrumental arrangement by Dolly Collins (sister of the great folksinger Shirley Collins) featuring her on organ accompanied by David Munrow and members of his Early Music Consort on period instruments.  Heather takes a solo turn on "The Loyal Lover" sung a cappella.  It an expression of fidelity and love from a woman whose lover is away at sea.  The oddest track on the album is Peter Bellamy's cover of bluesman Robert Johnson's "Stones In My Passway" complete with fake scratches and vinyl wear.  It sounds pretty convincing.  "Idumea" is an 18th Century hymn sung a cappella by the trio.  Old hymns are definitely not my thing, but this one is kind of interesting, a gloomy tune that speculates about death.  "The Husband and the Serving Man" is another a cappella song featuring Bellamy and Royston sung as a dialogue between a farmer and a soldier as to who has the better profession (the farmer wins.)    Heather takes her turn at the microphone for "The Rolling of the Stones" a fragment of a love ballad.  Bellamy sings "The Bitter Withy" accompanying himself on a concertina.  It is a truly weird ballad in which Jesus as a youth asks three rich young lords to play ball with him, but they dismiss him as a Jew born in a barn.  To prove his superiority Jesus makes a bridge over a river out of sunbeams and when the lords try to follow him across they fall in the river and drown.  Their mothers complain to Mary and she spanks Jesus with some willow twigs.  Now that's my kind of Bible story.  Side one concludes with the trio's a cappella performance of the traditional "The Banks of the Nile" which will be familiar to Sandy Denny fans from her brilliant performance of it on the "Fotheringay" album.  I greatly prefer the Fotheringay version.  The song tells of two lovers forced to part as the man must go with the English army to fight in Egypt.  Side two begins with "Wondrous Love" by Rev. Robert Seagrave, another hymn sung a cappella by the trio.  Not my cup of tea.  "Medieval Mystery Tour" (yay a Beatles reference!) is an instrumental arranged by Bert Jansch and John Renbourn consisting of traditional dance tunes.  Heather and Bellamy play whistles and Royston provides the percussion.  "Upon the Bough" is a brief anti-hunting song sung a cappella by Heather with a double tracked vocal.  "Ratcliff Highway" will be familiar to Fairport Convention fans as the song "The Deserter" on "Liege and Lief."  The group sings it a cappella.  It is about a young man forced into military service who repeatedly deserts his regiment resulting in a death sentence.  This version does not have the happy ending that the Fairport version does, but is otherwise similar although not nearly as powerful as the Fairport performance.  Royston gives an engaging a cappella performance of "The Brisk Young Widow," a traditional ballad about a farmer who attempts to woo a lovely widow but is rejected by her because she wants a wealthier suitor.  The farmer then observes her being successfully wooed by a dirty collier and he swears off courting widows.  "The Pembroke Unique Ensemble" is an instrumental version of the tune "Soldiers Three" performed by future Fairport Conventioneer, Dave Swarbrick, on multi-tracked mandolin and fiddle.  Sandy Denny supposedly plays piano on the track but I can't hear her.  Next the group delivers an a cappella performance of "John Barleycorn," a traditional tune about growing barley to make beer.  There are many folk recordings of this venerable ballad but rock fans probably know it from Traffic's "John Barleycorn Must Die" album.  The album concludes with my favorite song on the album, "The Agincourt Carol."  It is the longest song on the album and possibly the oldest as well.  It commemorates the early 15th Century victory of the English over the French at the Battle of Agincourt and the chorus, which gives thanks to God, is sung in Latin.  The group are again joined by Dolly Collins and the Early Music Consort who provide strong instrumental support for this percussion driven song.  I find it quite stirring.  I've mentioned in previous posts how I became interested in English folk music because of folk-rock bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.  When I started listening to records of the traditional recordings I was surprised and dismayed to find that they were mostly performed a cappella.  I got used to that eventually and on this record I generally enjoy the a cappella performances, particularly the ones with ensemble vocals.  Nonetheless, I prefer the songs with instrumental backing, especially "What If a Day" and "The Agincourt Carol."  I think instrumental accompaniment adds power to the songs and makes them more compelling to listen to.  This would be demonstrated in the next couple of years by Fairport Convention and Pentangle who would show just how powerful these old songs could be when supported by the instrumental prowess of a first rate rock band.  I do like this record though, it among my favorite traditional folk records.  Recommended to fans of Shirley Collins and the Watersons.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Heaven/Earth - The Free Design

The Free Design
Project 3  PR 5037SD

The third album by the Free Design.  I'm a big 1960s buff, but I was not aware of this group until I heard Dressy Bessy's cover of one of their songs on "The Powerpuff Girls" soundtrack CD.  I liked the song and looked up its origin and thus discovered this band that really I should have known about much earlier.  They didn't appear in any of the rock encyclopedias or histories I used when forming my record collection.  They toiled in undeserved obscurity during their existence from 1967 to 1972.   The band enjoyed a modest resurgence of interest in the past decade fueled by the admiration of bands like Stereolab and the reissuing of their original albums.  The band consisted of four siblings, the Dedricks, led by brother Chris who wrote the band's original material and did their elaborate arrangements. The band's style was a mix of arty soft rock and chamber pop akin to Orpheus or the Millennium but better than either.  I'm not a big soft rock fan, but this group really appeals to me.  I like all of Chris Dedrick's original songs which comprise most of side one.  My favorite is "2002 - A Hit Song" which is about how to write a hit single and the band's failure to achieve one.  Dedrick is mocking hit singles, but really this song should have been one.  It has a big hooky bass line, a solid beat, a catchy chorus and the band's characteristically complex vocal harmonies driving it, a terrific song.  The album's closing tune "Dorian Benediction" is Dedrick's most interesting song.  It blends a vocal line that sounds derived from Medieval liturgical music with a jazzy instrumental backing with remarkable results.  "Now Is The Time" is upbeat sunshine pop that is highly engaging and the most propulsive tune on the record.  "You Be You and I'll Be Me" is in a similar vein and almost as good.  I like the lyrics about keeping one's identity in a relationship.  "My Very Own Angel" and "Girls Alone" are slight but very lovely thanks to the delicate instrumental arrangements and enchanting vocal harmonies.  I like the cover songs on the album much less.  They make up most of side two.  My favorite is their cover of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter" which is very slow and deliberate.  Normally I would object to the lethargic pace of the song, but the vocals are so gorgeous I find that I appreciate the slow tempo.  They do a jazzy version of Gershwin's "Summertime" which has an impressive arrangement and the studio band really cooks, but I find the vocals kind of weak.  The song needs a stronger lead singer than the band can provide.   There is a chamber pop version of "Where Do I Go" from the musical "Hair."  I like the strings which make the song seem less like a show tune.  "Hurry Sundown" was a flop single for Peter, Paul and Mary.  I like the Free Design's version a lot better both for its superior arrangement and for the quality of the vocal harmonies.  The worst of the cover songs is the group's version of "Memories" which was a hit for Elvis.  They dress the song up pretty nicely but I still find it nauseatingly sappy although definitely an improvement on Presley's record.  The Free Design and "Heaven/Earth" deserve to be better known.  Side one of this album is about as good as any soft rock I've ever heard, I listen to it quite a bit.  Recommended to fans of the Cowsills and Spanky and Our Gang looking for something a little smarter.